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Women in American musicfree

  • Judith Tick
  •  and Judy Tsou

The achievements of women in American music and the patterns of their participation in musical life are approached historically in this article; greater attention is given to women as a group than to individuals. Scholarship on women and music is mentioned here; for more detailed discussions see Feminism and Gender .

1. Colonial period to 1850.

Women’s music-making up to 1850 was mainly secular and centered on the home. Generally regarded as a feminine “accomplishment,” music was considered in the 18th century an ornament or social skill; in the 19th century it became a component of a lady’s education. Women typically learned keyboard instruments, harp, and guitar, and were taught how to sing, but they were generally not trained as professionals, since society viewed public performance as immodest. Research into the role of women in music in this period has relied heavily on a vast prescriptive literature of etiquette manuals and educational tracts that discuss the proper place of music in a young lady’s life; classic examples of such books include John Bennett’s Letters to a Young Lady (1798) and Lydia Sigourney’s Letters to Young Ladies (1844).

One of the cultural consequences of the American view of music as a feminine accomplishment was that greater emphasis was given to music in the curricula of schools for girls than of those for boys. Studies in the history of American music education have confirmed that private Female Academies and Seminaries played a central role in early American musical life—as major employers of professional musicians and as a market for textbooks, as well as for the audience they created for such specialized genres of musical composition as the secular cantata. It is significant that the first conservatory in the United States was a seminary for women, the Music Vale Academy, founded in 1835. Another consequence of this traditional view was that, in the most general sense, music became a “feminine” field. Women were not traditionally educated for professional music activities, but their amateur presence was so strong that in the social circles in which music played an important part, music became very largely the province of women. Among the female counterparts to such well-known gentlemen amateurs in the late 18th century as Francis Hopkinson and Benjamin Franklin were Eleanor Custis Parke (George Washington’s stepdaughter) and Martha Jefferson and her two daughters Martha and Maria.

During the same period, the best-known professional female musicians were mostly, but not all, English singers who came to the United States to start second careers. The most important of these before 1800 was Mary Ann Pownall, known in England as Mrs. Wrighton, who was a composer as well as a performer. John Rowe Parker’s A Musical Biography (1824) contains sketches of several others, among them Dolly Broadhurst, Georgina Oldmixon, and Sophia Hewitt Ostinelli, who was the daughter of James Hewitt, organist of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society 1820–30. Another early keyboard player and composer was Elizabeth von Hagen, whom O.G.T. Sonneck called “in a way the most interesting member” of a well-known family of professional musicians (Early Concert Life in America, 1907, p.231).

As for composition, very few women had works published in the United States before 1825. Bibliographies of secular music in print list about 70 pieces by women, most of them songs by English composers and a number of others published anonymously by “ladies” from various cities (e.g., The U.S. Marine March by “a Lady of Charleston” and the Titus March by “a Lady of Baltimore”). More American female composers began to have works published in the 1840s (e.g., Marion Dix Sullivan and Augusta Browne), but the English presence in American song remained strong until the end of the 1860s. Among the most popular English female composers in the 1830s and 40s were Caroline Norton and Harriet Browne; in the 1850s and 60s, Charlotte Barnard (who wrote under the penname Claribel) and Virginia Gabriel were equally well known, their major American counterparts being Faustina Hasse Hodges and Susan (Mrs. E.A.) Parkhurst.

In the area of religious music, the great wave of singing-school composition passed women by: William Billings, Timothy Swan, and Daniel Read had no female counterparts. Apart from the female composers in the community of Shakers, the Ephrata Cloister, and other sectarian colonies, women began to set hymns to music and write hymnal poetry only in the middle of the 19th century. The best-known of the numerous female poets of sacred song in the 1850s and 60s were Fanny Crosby, Phoebe Cary, and Mary Dana Shindler. Musical settings of gospel songs appeared later, Susan Parkhurst and Phoebe Knapp being the most important composers in this genre.

2. 1850–1900.

During the second half of the 19th century, music was less often perceived simply as a social accomplishment for women—a view that had produced what the critic James Huneker deprecatingly described as the “piano girl,” the unmusical but socially adaptable dilettante. The unprecedented success of Music Study in Germany (1880, 2/1896/R), Amy Fay’s account of her time with the leading pianists of Germany, signaled the era of the “new girl,” one who was serious in her study and potentially a professional musician. The energies that had fueled “accomplishment” were redirected into a number of different channels, one of which was music teaching. Between 1870 and 1910, the number of women in “music and music teaching” (the job category created by the US Bureau of the Census to delineate the music professions) increased eightfold, and the proportion of women in music rose from 36% to 60%, the highest it was ever to reach before 1970.

Women also emerged as patrons and began to take roles of cultural responsibility. Historians have written eloquently on culture in these decades as a “feminized” sphere within American society, which is no less true of music than of literature or art. Fanny Raymond Ritter’s speech “Women in Music,” delivered to the Association for the Advancement of Women at the Centennial Congress of 1876, described the role of women as patrons in terms that remained valid for the next half-century: “The role of the genuine unpretending amateur, the assistant, the befriender of artists, is especially fitted to the cultivated woman… . With lady amateurs then will chiefly rest the happy task of preparing … the soil which must foster the young genius of future American art.” Prominent among the women who founded conservatories were Clara Baur, who founded the Cincinnati Conservatory in 1867; Jeannette Thurber, who established the National Conservatory in New York in 1885; and Ada Clement and Lillian Hodgehead, who founded the San Francisco Conservatory in 1917. Women also organized music clubs, the most important of which was the National Federation of Music Clubs, founded by Florence Sutro in 1898. With more funding for conservatories and women’s colleges, higher education became more accessible to women; professional opportunities also increased significantly for women in the second half of the 19th century. In popular music “singing families” such as the Hutchinsons and the Bakers, which typically included women, offered an alternative to the minstrel troupes which were all-male (as well as all-white) until after the Civil War. The burgeoning musical theater of the 1860s and 70s demanded women as actresses, singers, and dancers in spectacles, ballets, and musical plays; two performers of note were the dancers Marie Bonfanti and Lydia Thompson.

Clara Louise Kellogg, c. 1865.

Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
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One barrier to the achievements of American women in music had been the slow growth of an audience for opera, but the increase in the number of opera companies, choral groups, and oratorio societies and the custom of using operatic singers at band concerts gave rise to the first generation of American-born singers; the spectacular American debut and tour (1850–2) of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind also encouraged American prima donnas. Outstanding among these were Adelaide Phillipps (a protégée of Lind), Lillian Nordica, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (one of the first black women on the concert stage), Emma Thursby, Emma Abbott, and Clara Louise Kellogg, who was the first American singer to achieve fame in Europe as well as in the United States. Although fewer in number, women began to be accepted on the concert stage as virtuoso instrumentalists in the second half of the 19th century. Camilla Urso and Maud Powell were celebrated violinists of international repute and outspoken champions of equal opportunities for female musicians, and the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño was soon succeeded by Fannie Zeisler and Julie Rivé-King. Women’s chamber music and orchestral ensembles included such groups as the Fadette Ladies’ Orchestra, The (1888), the Eichberg Ladies’ String Quartet, and the Women’s String Orchestra of New York (1896).

The 1890s saw some radical changes in the role of women in music. The debate over the innate creative potential of women had already begun in 1880 with George P. Upton’s fierce articulation of biological determinism in his book Woman in Music. In the 1890s the battle continued, but the question of the female composer—could she or should she compose in the “higher forms” of symphonic or chamber music?—was answered by the achievements of a pioneering generation of composers who became prominent between 1880 and 1900. Amy Marcy Beach, who was the first female composer to have a symphony performed in the United States (1893, Boston SO) and was active well into the 1920s, Margaret Ruthven Lang, Helen Hopekirk, and Clara Kathleen Rogers were the female members of a Boston school of composers in the 1890s, the decade Arthur Foote described as the “golden” one for music composition.

3. 1900–50.

Affected not only by changes in the structure of American musical life but by the upheavals of two World Wars and the cataclysm of the Depression, American women continued to turn to music as a hospitable profession during the first half of the 20th century. The most significant generalizations that can be made about this period concern the degree of professional segregation within music, the continued importance of singing as a solo career in all musical styles, and the small role women played as solo instrumentalists and composers. All these aspects of women’s role in American musical life are colored by the striking social changes that took place between the beginning of the century, when life was still governed by Victorian morality, and the end of World War II, by which time there was a considerable degree of equality for women in American society.

Census data indicate that on the whole the percentage of women in “music and music teaching” in the first half of the century increased, but the extraordinary growth in their numbers that took place between 1870 and 1910 tapered off between 1910 and 1940. The reason for this pattern of development is not entirely clear. Even in 1940 when the number of women active in music was at its lowest point (41% of the total), it was still far greater than the cumulative figure for all the other professions (12–14%). Women may have been hurt more than men by the Depression, when unemployment among musicians, both male and female, ran to 60% (in 1934). Their participation in the Federal Music Project of the New Deal was limited: estimates in 1938 placed the number of women employed in FMP orchestras at 2253 of a total of 15,000 musicians. Between 1940 and 1950 the number of women in music and music teaching again declined, but their proportion increased. It may be that men moved into more lucrative professions in the technical or business sectors of the labor force, thereby lessening the competition, but the changes in the nature of music education may also have affected the numbers of women in music professions. With the shift from private instruction to institutions of higher education, music training became more formalized, as in other professions, with advanced degree attainments and salaried jobs becoming the rule rather than the exception; musicians began to lose their freelance status. As a result, the characterization of music as “women’s work” diminished to some extent during this period.

Occupational segregation (exemplified in the formation of all-female instrumental ensembles) was a product of the conflict between supply and demand. Discrimination against female instrumentalists was pervasive, and there was little work for the increasing numbers of female conservatory graduates. All-female groups, a phenomenon prefigured in the 1890s, were a component of musical life between 1925 and 1945. About 30 women’s orchestras flourished between the wars in such cities as Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, and pioneer conductors such as Antonia Brico, Ebba Sundstrom, and Ethel Leginska (who was also a pianist) relied heavily upon these groups for work. In 1938 Frédérique Petrides, a conductor and the founder of the journal Women in Music, claimed that there were 522 women playing in the eight major women’s orchestras.

The policy governing the engaging of players in the “mixed” orchestras (as sex-integrated ensembles were then known) changed slowly, mostly in response to the social and economic consequences of World War II. College marching bands became integrated as young men were drafted. German musicians lost the cachet that they had had since the middle of the 19th century. By 1945 most of the major orchestras (as classified by the ASOL), including those of Boston and Chicago, had hired their first female players; the percentage of women increased from two to eight between 1942 and 1948, affecting very few individuals but setting important precedents.

To start a women’s orchestra required social and economic assertiveness, and in that respect the phenomenon reflects the liberalizing effects of organized feminism, which succeeded in 1920 in passing the constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The flapper was one kind of “new woman”; Ethel Leginska exemplified another. Even before the 1920s, she championed practical dress for female musicians as the “privilege of a uniform,” allowing “the personal self to be put out of the way as much as possible” in order to assure “comfort and freedom.” The all-female groups in popular music and jazz, less bound by the formal traditions of classical music, relied more overtly on glamour. Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra was one of the best-known groups of the 1930s, and other, more jazz-oriented ensembles included Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular group in the 1940s.

As in the 19th century, the most important female figures in classical music, jazz, and popular music were virtuoso singers. In opera, where women did not compete with men for roles or jobs, the issue was not one of sex and status but of a colonial preference for European artists. Again World War II marked a turning-point, with nationalism and a shortage of European musicians increasing the demand for American singers. Helen Traubel and Rosa Ponselle were propelled to international fame. For black women, problems of racial discrimination began to be resolved only after the war. In 1946 the New York City Opera became the first major opera company to employ black singers as principals. Around the same time, the concert artist Marian Anderson established herself as the best-known black singer in American musical history and one of the world’s leading contraltos in the 20th century. Making her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, Anderson was the first black artist of either sex to appear in one of its productions.

In other forms of musical theater, too, where there had to be a girl for the boy to meet, the numbers of women and men performers were more or less equal. Among the most popular before 1950 were Fanny Brice, Jeanette MacDonald, Gertrude Lawrence, and Judy Garland. Female vocalists faced more direct competition in popular music and jazz but were nevertheless able to carve out an artistic sphere in which their achievements were recognized as equal, though their commercial success as a group after 1940 was not. One bright period was the 1920s, which was illuminated by the artistry of such classic blues singers as Ma Rainey (the “Mother” of the blues), Bessie Smith (its “Empress” and the highest-paid black artist of the decade), Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters. Swing brought about the demise of classic blues, and the folklorists’ preoccupation with country blues in the 1940s assured its obscurity until the 1970s. However, women equaled men in popularity if not in numbers as band singers in the late 1930s and 40s and were an integral part of the golden age of American popular singing. Female artists represented 25–30% of the total on the Top Ten and Top 40 Billboard charts between 1940 and 1955, higher than in later years. The kind of commercial success that Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan achieved after the 1950s eluded Billie Holiday, who nevertheless became one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th history.

Mary Lou Williams, 1968.

JazzSign/Lebrecht Music and Arts
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With respect to solo instrumental careers, some of the gains made in classical music at the turn of the 20th century were not sustained. Few virtuosos matched the international prominence of such celebrities as Carreño or Powell; some of the best-known were the violinist Erica Morini, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and the pianists Olga Samaroff, Ruth Slenczynska, and Rosalyn Tureck. The record of women instrumentalists in jazz is obscure. Research on the subject of jazz women has documented a hidden history in the 19th century of African American, female brass bands, and in the 20th century a number of pianists, leaders of small ensembles, and swing and bop trumpet and saxophone players. The best-known is undoubtedly Mary Lou Williams, who emerged as a leading pianist and composer in the 1930s, and later mentored and performed with many jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell during the birth of bebop in the 1940s.

The pattern of recognition or commercial success for women composers in both classical and popular music between 1900 and 1950 suggests that composition was an extremely difficult area, though women made some significant achievements. Numerically they were overwhelmed by their male counterparts. Maude Nugent, Anita Owen, and Caro Roma were among the composers who had hits in the early years of Tin Pan Alley; Dorothy Fields’s lyrics were set by Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, and Sigmund Romberg from the 1920s to the 1940s; and Kay Swift, Ann Ronell, and Dana Suesse wrote melodies that became pop standards.

In classical music women no longer had to prove themselves capable of composing symphonies or operas. To some extent the polemics surrounding the issue of female creativity abated, and the numbers of women composing music increased. A survey (Barnes, 1936) discussed over 70 female composers and enumerated 100 more as notable in American musical life. Yet the Depression years, which were fruitful for many female painters, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Grandma Moses, were not notably so for composers, though the slow but steady progress they had made since the 1890s continued. Between 1890 and 1960 about 1000 orchestral works are known to have been composed by women; most of these, such as Florence Bea Price’s Symphony in E minor (1932), the second symphony composed by an American woman and the first by an African American woman, were written after 1930.

On the whole, female composers of the period 1920–50 were in a position somewhat analogous to that of the members of all-female orchestras: at best they were functionally marginal. Most financial support came from such organizations as the National Federation of Music Clubs, the National Association of Pen Women, and the MacDowell Colony, whose founder, Marian MacDowell, welcomed many women composers over the years, including Marion Bauer, Ruth Crawford, and Amy Beach. Many orchestral compositions were given first performances by women’s symphonic ensembles. The treatment of female composers in music histories, where they were frequently grouped together by sex rather than by style or chronology, indicates the degree of attention their work received. The most prominent were Mary Howe, Mabel Daniels, Gena Branscombe, Eleanor Everest Freer, and Florence Galajikian. Howe, Branscombe, Beach, and Ethel Glenn Hier founded the Association of American Women Composers in 1926.

There were exceptional figures who transcended such cultural placement. Both Marion Bauer (in the 1910s and 20s) and Ruth Crawford (in the 1920s and 30s) were active in the new-music movement. Bauer was an early member of the League of Composers and was the only woman to receive a commission from it; she, Claire Reis, the patron Alma Morgenthau Wertheim, and Minna Lederman, the editor of Modern Music, were all influential figures in American musical life before World War II. Crawford, who had been a protégée of Henry Cowell and whose patron was Blanche W. Walton, was an important innovator and the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition. Crawford and Peggy Glanville-Hicks were the only American women between 1923 and 1948 to have works performed in the annual concerts of the ISCM.

4. 1950–80.

(i) General.

After World War II the percentage of women in the music professions began to climb (1950, 50.7%; 1960, 57.1%). By 1960, the last year in which the job category “music and music teaching” was used by the census bureau, the percentage was comparable to that in 1900. Given the revolutionary growth in the proportion of females in the labor force (42% in 1970), it would have been surprising had the figure for this category not changed. The statistical profile, however, has to be qualified in a few important ways, some of which relate to the profession as a whole. The Monthly Labor Review indicates that music has been a “declining profession” in relation to other occupations. In 1900 8% of all professional workers were in “music and music teaching,” and music was one of the five leading professions for women. In the 1980s the profession accommodated only about 0.5% of the work force, and it was not a major occupation for either sex. The role that women have played in it, despite fluctuations in the middle of the century, is best described as moderate: neither as small as in engineering, for example, nor as large as in elementary school teaching, but similar to their role in secondary-school teaching and the census category of “artists and art teachers.” A second qualification that must be applied to the statistics is that the category “music and music teachers” was not subdivided until 1970; before that it included all jobs in music, from a full-time position with a major orchestra to a part-time, freelance career as a performer or music teacher. The 1970 census separated musicians and composers from teachers; as a result, the proportion of women in the delineated category of musicians and composers was significantly lower (35% of the total of 99,533 in 1970; 30% of the total of 140,566 in 1980). Although the labor force increased by 41% between 1970 and 1980, this was one of the few artists’ occupations where there was a higher percentage increase of men than of women.

Significant growth occurred in orchestral employment. Women’s orchestras declined markedly after the war, and despite a mild resurgence in the mid-1970s (all-female orchestras were established in Boston and Los Angeles, and later in the San Francisco Bay Area) the pattern was one of integration. Female employment in the major symphony orchestras increased from 8% in 1947 to 26.3% in 1982, with more concentrated growth between 1947 and 1955 and from 1970 to the mid-1980s. With the exception of the New York PO, which accepted women players for the first time only in 1966, the major orchestras had become integrated by 1945. The postwar economic boom sustained the new employment pattern, and further changes in the 1970s resulted from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action plans designed to provide equality of opportunity for women, and innovative engagement practices such as blind auditions. The proportion of female players was higher in the lower-budget categories (metropolitan and community orchestras) determined by the ASOL.

Another measure of change was the increase in the number of women earning degrees in music. Since 1947, when statistics were first compiled, women have constituted slightly over half of the undergraduate population majoring in music. Between 1950 and 1980 the percentage of women receiving the master’s degree grew from about a third to half of the total; the proportion of women who received the PhD nearly doubled between 1970 and 1980. These developments, however, had virtually no impact on academic employment, and women constituted less than a quarter of college teaching staffs, according to the statistics provided by the National Association of Schools of Music, which gave the figure as 22% for 1974–5 and 23% for 1981–2.

(ii) Pop singers and the charts.

When the rock and roll revolution eclipsed popular ballad singing in the 1950s, the status and success of women in popular music declined, as statistics derived from airplay and record sales charted by Billboard indicate. Nine female stars or groups appeared in the Top 40 between 1940 and 1955 (including Dinah Shore, Doris Day, and Rosemary Clooney) but only six between 1955 and 1972 (including the Supremes, Brenda Lee, and Aretha Franklin). Nor is the picture much different in the rhythm and blues, country music, and easy listening Billboard categories. The proportion of women in the charts is highest in the easy-listening category, which is aimed at the adult contemporary market. The proportion of women in popular music in general increased in the 1970s. Opportunities for African American women grew significantly after 1955. Before that time all of the Top 40 artists had been white; of those whose recordings reached the Top 40 in the later period, two of the solo artists were black. Black female groups such as the Supremes achieved great success; their success followed the impact of such outstanding female gospel singers as Mahalia Jackson, “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe, and Marion Williams.

The success of women measured as a group as opposed to the success of individual artists deserves special comment. Growth in the pop music business has been so large since 1955 (1700 recordings were issued 1940–55 and about 11,000 1955–72) that the artists who have attained Top 40 status have received much attention and made an enormous impact. Notable among these are Barbra Streisand, a major singing and acting star over a long period, Joan Baez, who became the first international star of the folk revival in the 1960s, and Carole King, whose album Tapestry is one of the best-selling recordings by a single artist (more than 13 million copies had been sold) and who has won several Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, in 1971, a first for a woman.

(iii) Art music.

Opera remained the area of greatest success for women musicians in classical music. Both black and white female artists attained the pinnacle of their profession; among the most notable of these performers were Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, and Beverly Sills. The achievements of women as a group in instrumental performance are difficult to assess. Among the soloists who made important careers included the pianists Ruth Laredo and Ursula Oppens and the violinists Ani and Ida Kavafian. Perhaps most gains were made in chamber music; a number of the elite ensembles that became popular in the 1960s and 70s had female members. Among the best-known performers of this period were the flutists Paula Robison and Eugenia Zukerman, the violists Karen Phillips and Kim Kashkashian, the cellist Sharon Robinson, and the harpist Nancy Allen. A number of women forged important conducting careers not confined to all-women orchestras. Among these, Margaret Hillis, who founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus, became in 1976 the first woman to conduct a regular orchestral subscription concert and won successive Grammy Awards for her recordings. Sarah Caldwell founded the Opera Company of Boston in 1957 and was the first woman to conduct the Metropolitan Opera (in 1976). Judith Somogi became the first woman to conduct the New York City Opera (1974), and Eve Queler founded the Opera Orchestra of New York in 1967.

The patterns of employment and of professional recognition in composition show that the occupation remains dominated by males. Surveys conducted by the College Music Society indicate that women constituted 5.8% of those teaching composition in colleges and universities in 1972–4 and 10.6% in 1975–6; the statistical doubling is significant, though the proportion of the total remains low. (These numbers do not account for those composers on college faculties who do not teach composition.) Women received meager support from the leading foundations granting commissions and prizes of this period, taking on average 3–4% of the total commissions awarded; the exception to this pattern is the NEA, which awarded women 9% of its commissions between 1973 and 1980. The number of Guggenheim awards to women in the 1970s more than doubled the figure for the preceding 40 years. No Koussevitzky commissions were awarded to women between its inception and 1959, yet five were made between 1959 and 1976; similarly, no Fromm Foundation commissions were made between 1952 and 1969, yet six were made since 1970. (For lists of the recipients of these commissions see Coolidge, Elizabeth (Penn) Sprague, paul Fromm , and Koussevitzky Foundations.)

In 1973 Louise Talma became the first female composer to be elected to the Institute of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Barbara Kolb won the Rome Prize in 1971 and her work received performances by important orchestras in the 1970s. Mention should also be made of Pauline Oliveros, who as a co-director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1961–5 (and later at Mills College) was associated with the avant-garde movement. About 40 women were active in electronic music studios in American universities, five of which were founded by female composers: the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore (Jean Eichelberger Ivey); the University of California, Santa Barbara (Emma Lou Diemer); Hunter College, CUNY (Ruth Anderson); the University of Connecticut, Storrs (Jane Brockman); and California State University, Northridge (Beverly Grigsby).

In general, it appears that the 1970s was one of the most important decades for women in music in the 20th century. The changes that occurred in areas of music that had little or no relationship to one another—the increase in the number of higher degrees awarded, the number of debuts made by female conductors at major houses, the increase in the number of commissions and awards, better representation in the leading orchestras, and so on—have more to do with the status of women in American society in general than with developments in American musical life. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and affirmative-action programs set standards for evaluation that sensitized American society to the problems of race and sex discrimination. The threatened withdrawal of federal funds and the possibility of litigation further supported equality of opportunity. The revitalization of the women’s movement in the 1970s had a direct bearing on the status of women in the arts, as it had in the 1890s. Cultural activism in both decades was fueled by a resurgence of feminism, and a central issue was the recognition of contemporary female composers and opportunities for their works to be performed. It was historically apt for the National Federation of Music Clubs to take one of the earliest steps by publishing the Directory of American Women Composers (Chicago, 1970), the first such work published since Barnes’s survey of 1936. Two composers’ organizations were formed: the International League of Women Composers, founded by Nancy Van de Vate in 1975 as the League of Women Composers and now part of the International Alliance for Women in Music; and American Women Composers, founded by Tommie Ewert Carl in 1976 (publishing the AWC News beginning in 1978). Also in 1976 two experimental composers, Doris Hays and Beth Anderson, organized a well-publicized course, “Meet the Woman Composer,” at the New School for Social Research in New York. Academic women also organized committees on the status of women in major university organizations such as the College Music Society and the AMS; at a joint meeting of the two societies in 1976 a session devoted to the study of women in music was held, and a similar session was held at the annual meeting of the MLA in 1977.

A market for Women’s music also coalesced in the 1970s. As defined in The Ladyslipper Catalog and Resource Guide and Catalog of Records and Tapes by Women, the term signified “music springing from a feminist consciousness, utilizing women’s talent … with production, presentation and finances controlled by women.” The most prominent women’s music label, Olivia Records, was founded in 1974; four years later the Women’s Independent Label Distributors (WILD) was organized to promote concert tours as well as national record distribution. Two outstanding singers in the women’s music movement were Meg Christian and Cris Williamson.

Bibliographies, recordings, scores, and studies of women composers of the past have been an offshoot of the growth of women’s studies in general. Major landmarks in the prolific literature generated on the subject during the 1970s were the bibliography Women in American Music (1979), the series of women’s scores published by Da Capo Press under the direction of Bea Friedland, and the recordings issued by Leonarda Productions, Inc., founded by Marnie Hall in 1977.

Festivals and concerts of music by female composers became increasingly common in the mid-1970s. The first National Women’s Music Festival, held in 1974 at the University of Illinois, Urbana, was followed by the annual Michigan womyn’s music festival in 1976. Much activity concerning women in music was generated by the International Women’s Year proclaimed by the United Nations in 1975, a key event of which was the concert devoted to women composers given by the New York PO under the direction of Sarah Caldwell and sponsored by the popular feminist publication Ms. Jazz festivals have taken place every year since the First Women’s Jazz Festival was held in Kansas City in March 1978.

5. 1980–2000

(i) General.

The generation coming of age during the 1980s benefited from the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in terms of professional gains in most areas of music, especially in popular music. In 1980, women musicians comprised 30% of working musicians. By the 1990 census, women made a modest gain to almost a third of all musicians. The women who entered the music field became better recognized, selling more recordings than ever, and more honors were bestowed by major awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and the Grammy.

(ii) Pop singers and the charts.

For the first time, half of the Top 10 singles of the 1980s decade listed in Billboard had women lead singers (including Diana Ross and Irene Cara), compared to three in the previous decade and none the decades before. The surge of recording sales, following the introduction of the CD in 1982, prompted RIAA to add the multi-platinum category (2 million copies sold) in 1984. Women from pop/rock, country, and rhythm-and-blues were well represented in the multi-platinum categories by the 1990s. Among them were Shania Twain (20 million albums sold for Come On Over), Alanis Morisette (14 million for Jagged Little Pill), and the Dixie Chicks (12 million for Wide Open Spaces). The inauguration of MTV in August of 1981 came to associate many popular music artists with their videos. As a result, many singer-dancers became superstars; topping the Billboard charts and receiving recognition for their videos were Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Cyndi Lauper. Madonna became an international female icon, propelled initially by the sales of her Like a Virgin album. Whitney Houston enjoyed similar success after her self-titled debut album in 1985, which generated three number-one hits. Songwriters Donna Wise, Jackie DeShannon, and K.T. Oslin also garnered wide critical acclaim. A new genre, rap, emerged in the late 1970s and in 1998 became America’s top-selling musical genre, with over 81 million units sold, an increase of 31% from the previous year. Dominated by male artists, and often steeped in violence and the objectification of women, rap seemingly offered little place for expressions of female agency. But women pioneers such as the group Salt-N-Pepa and solo artist Queen Latifah carved out a place for women artists in rap. In 1994, Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance, and Salt-N-Pepa won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a duo or group. It marked the first time that women had won any Grammy Award for rap categories since their inception in 1988. Other prominent women rappers have included MC Lyte, Lil’ Kim, and Missy Elliott. Women made tremendous gains in other genres of pop music in the 1990s as well. For the first time, women dominated the pop music charts. Mariah Carey was the only artist, female or male, to land a number one song in every year of the 1990s. Whitney Houston’s movie soundtrack The Bodyguard (1992) topped the charts and sold over 17 million copies by 2010. An increasing number of women songwriters came to prominence in the 2000s, including Alanis Morisette, Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Tracy Chapman, and Lauryn Hill, who wrote chart-topping hits in genres such as pop, folk, country, and rap.

Women started making headway in country music in the 1980s, sparked by Dolly Parton’s anthem “9 to 5.” Other prominent female country artists included Emmylou Harris, the Judds, and Rosanne Cash. The stars of the decade included newcomers LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, and the Dixie Chicks, all of whom won multiple Grammy Awards and produced commercial megahits. Shania Twain incorporated a pop-rock influence into her country style and won over audiences from other genres, and the Dixie Chicks also wrote successful crossover country songs. Other genres such as Latin music and gospel music, which featured women stars, also appealed to a wider audience.

Whitney Houston, 1989.

PA Photos /Landov
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In jazz, women remained recognized primarily as singers, winning Grammy awards as vocalists but not as instrumentalists. NEA’s Jazz Masters Award, however, honored both female singers as well as instrumentalists (trombonist and composer Melba Liston and pianist Dorothy Donegan) in this period.

(iii) Art music.

Women in art music made substantial strides these two decades, though not as great as those made by women popular music artists. More women won composition awards and commissions, and more women played in symphony orchestras. Women opera singers from diverse backgrounds continued to enjoy success, including singers such as Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, and Kathleen Battle.

Since the adoption of blind auditions by American symphony orchestras in the 1970s and 80s, there was a 25% increase in women in symphony orchestras in the US from 1970 to 1996, according to a study by social scientists Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse (2000). Before 1980, the five largest orchestras in the United States (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia) employed 12% or fewer women. After blind auditions took effect, the New York PO’s proportion of female musicians rose to 35% by the mid-1990s. Working conditions, too, improved after Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, which forced orchestras to eliminate clauses that could void a woman’s contract if she became pregnant. While women instrumentalists benefited from blind auditions, women conductors did not reap similar benefits as blind auditions could not be held. In addition, symphony boards generally clung to the idea that a conductor should be male. These were some of the reasons for the lack of women music directors in major US orchestras during this period. Instead, successful women conductors held music directorships in regional orchestras, such as Victoria Bond, who was appointed music director and conductor of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in 1986. From 1993 to 2005, Marin Alsop was first principal conductor, then music director for the Colorado Symphony. JoAnn Falleta was appointed conductor of the Buffalo PO in 1999.

Women composers made more headway than conductors during the 1980s and the 90s. In 1983, Ellen Taafe Zwilich became the first female composer to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for music composition in its 40-year history. Shulamit Ran and Melinda Wagner also won the Pulitzer in the last decade of the century. Other major composition awards, such as the Grawemeyer, have proven more elusive for women; it was not until 1990 that the first woman, Joan Tower, won the award. Three women won the Rome Prize between 1980 and 1999 (Kathryn Alexander and Michelle Ekizian in 1989 and Bun-Ching Lum in 1992). In the same period, 12 women became Guggenheim fellows, including Chen Yi, Ursula Mamlock, Augusta Read Thomas, and Jennifer Higdon. Similarly, the Koussevitzky Foundation awarded ten grants to female composers in the last two decades of the 20th century, compared to five from the previous four decades.

Dawn Upshaw with Michael Schumacher in a performance of Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone, 2007.

Laurie Lewis/Lebrecht Music and Arts
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Several composer-vocalists, working independently, became icons of the avant garde in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Among them are Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, and later, Diamanda Galas. These women frequently crossed the art music and popular music spheres, exploring styles and sounds through their wide vocal ranges and other techniques, and sometimes using the music for social activism (for example, Galas on AIDS and environmental issues).

(iv) The academy and research.

The blatant discrimination against hiring women in academic positions earlier in the 20th century slowly dissipated in the late 1970s and early 80s due to the threat of withholding Federal funding and later, the settlement between universities and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1975 (Tsou, 1999). This spurred the academy toward the goal of gender equality, albeit at a slow pace. The Directory of Music Faculties US and Canada (College Music Society) first issued gender statistics in 1982–4, listing about 7600 (30.68%) women faculty members. Two years later (1984–6), the number increased to 7900 or 31.12%. The number rose to over 9700 (32.78%) in 1990–2. The recommendations from ethics committees and committees on the status of women in professional organizations such as the AMS helped improve women’s chances of entering the profession.

Major conferences held in the early 1980s marked a decade of activity. Jeannie Pool organized the International Congress on Women in Music in 1981 in New York, and meetings were subsequently held in Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Paris. The University of Michigan sponsored two national “Women in Music” conferences in 1982 and 1983 (Opus One and Opus Two), and the University of Kansas sponsored the third conference (Opus Three) in 1985. Michigan also founded a “Women Composers Collection,” a national repository and archive for scores and documents. Two publications devoted to women in music are The Ladyslipper Catalog (started in 1983, and now online at and The Musical Woman (1984–90), edited by J.L. Zaimont and others. In 1988, Susan McClary delivered a landmark paper on the construction of gender in Monteverdi’s dramatic music at AMS that started a revolution in music scholarship. McClary and her colleague Lydia Hammesley founded the “Feminist Theory and Music” biennial conference in 1991, introducing tools from gender studies, literary criticism, and other disciplines to analyze music. By this point, much research on women’s music had shifted from woman composer-centered research to historical inquiry into music, gender and sexuality, contextualized by critical theory. The first scholarly journal devoted to women and gender, Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, was established in 1997 under the aegis of The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM); it has since become an independent journal edited by Suzanne Cusick (University of Nebraska Press). Meanwhile, IAWM continues to champion women composers through the IAWM journal. A publisher of music by historical women, ClarNan Editions, was founded in 1985 by Barbara Garvey Jackson, to publicize the long-lost works by women.

6. After 2000.

Several major developments, some of which had started in the previous century, further transformed the music scene in the United States. Easy exchange and downloading of music over the Internet gave rise to a new model in music distribution that was increasingly prevalent among the consumers in the new century. Women musicians who do not fit typical expectations of the music industry can now directly market their music without relying on an agent or distributor. (An example is Zoe Keating’s highly successful non-traditional cello music, distributed only via the Internet.) In 2010, digital formats comprised 47% of total record sales, compared to 9% in 2005. It has also become harder to track the quantitative progress of women in music, because government census data no longer tracks “profession.” The American Community Survey, which sampled 2% of the population, lists women as making up 31.5% of the working musician population from 2005–9. At the same time, the musical workplace has become more diverse including more Latinas and African Americans in popular music, Asian Americans in orchestras, and immigrant Asian Americans among art music composers.

(i) Popular music.

Women jazz composers and instrumentalists have gained greater recognition than in earlier decades. The bandleader and composer Maria Schneider was honored by The Jazz Journalists Association every year from 2001–10 as Composer and/or Arranger of the Year. Her Internet-distributed album, Concert in the Garden, also won the 2004 Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble. Other recognitions include the NEA Jazz Master’s Award, which honored as many women (six) in the 2010s as the past two decades combined, including legendary pianist Marian McPartland and jazz pianist and bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi, the first Japanese American so honored.

Women continued to thrive in other genres of popular music in the new millennium. In the first decade of the century, 41 of the Billboard Top 100 songs were recorded by women artists, compared to 24 in the 1980s. Among the most successful artists were Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, and later in the decade, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. In 2009, all five of Billboard’s top artists of the year were women (Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Fergie/Black Eyed Peas, and Miley Cyrus). The Grammy Awards also showed a marked increase in the number of awards to women artists in categories that are not specifically targeted for women. Among the major awardees, across all of the major categories, are Alison Krauss, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, the Dixie Chicks, Aretha Franklin, and Joni Mitchell. In addition, Grammy retrospectively honored stars from eras past who had not received earlier recognition: Janis Joplin (2005), Doris Day (2008), Brenda Lee (2009), and Loretta Lynn (2010). As a sign that women artists have made enough gains to compete with men, the Grammy Foundation elected to eliminate gender-designated categories beginning in 2012.

Another sign of women’s gains in the popular music world was Billboard’s establishment of the “Women in Music” Award in 2005, honoring women music executives. The award indicates that enough women hold powerful positions to warrant such an award; its honorees include CEOs, record company owners, TV/radio executives, and others involved in the music business.

(ii) Art music.

By 2010, the number of women musicians in the major symphony orchestras had stabilized at about 36%. An exception was the New York PO, whose women musicians comprised about half of the orchestra by 2010 and which became one of the first major orchestras to hire a female assistant conductor (Xian Zhang) in 2004. No major US orchestra had named a woman concertmaster by 2011, but many women had gained positions as associate or assistant concertmasters. In the area of conducting, Marin Alsop became the first woman to hold a music directorship in a major orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, in 2007. In 2011, she was still the sole woman conductor in a major orchestra. Women conductors were more prevalent in the opera world: Sara Jobin (San Francisco Opera), Jane Glover (New York City Opera), Emmanuelle Haïm (Lyric Opera of Chicago), and Karen Keltner (San Diego Opera); though Keltner is the only woman resident conductor of these opera companies. Many women conducted regional orchestras, or guest conducted with major orchestras in the United States and abroad, among them Elizabeth Schulze (Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Flagstaff Symphony, and Hudson Valley Philharmonic), Joana Carneiro, (Berkeley Symphony), and Laura Jackson (Reno Philharmonic Orchestra).

Women composers have been routinely recognized with awards and grants in the new century. The Koussevitzky Foundation offered grants to female composers almost every year from 2000 to 2008, with a total of 15 recipients (including Melinda Wagner and Yu-Hui Chang) compared to ten recipients in the previous four decades. The Guggenheim Foundation offered two to four fellowships to women every year in the new century (including Gabriela Lena Frank and Jin-Hi Kim); ten composition fellowships are offered each year. The Rome Prize, which generally makes fewer awards, honored five women in the first decade of the new millennium (including Lisa Bielawa and Erin Gee), more than the previous two decades combined. The Grawemeyer Award honored only two women, neither American, as its prize winners in the 2000s. In 2010, for the first time, both the winner (Jennifer Higdon) and finalist (Julia Wolfe) for the Pulitzer Prize were women. In 2007, Joan Tower won the Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, becoming the first woman to win this category; Higdon joined Tower in 2009.

(iii) The academy and research.

Women in the academy still lag behind men in the new century, but there are signs of progress. In 2009–10, women held more than 36% of the faculty positions in music, with the highest proportion of women (35%) in the most recently hired ranks (assistant professor). The proportion of women decreases further up the rank (33% for associate professor and 25% for full professor).

Recent biographies on women composers have moved away from a positivistic approach and the prescribed narratives of a woman’s life to integrate new gender perspectives (Tick, 1997; Block, 1998; Mockus, 2008; Cusick, 2009). While research in the 1980s concentrated on the musical accomplishments of white women, more recent work explores women’s music-making from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds (Moisala and Diamond, 2000). Today’s scholarship increasingly reflects the impact of queer musicology (Hayes, 2010), gender studies and sexuality on the study of jazz (Rustin and Tucker, 2008), popular music (Whiteley, 2005), hip hop (Rose, 2004), country (Fox, 2009), and all other musical practices involving women.


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Women as composers
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  • L. Elkins-Marlow: “What Have Women in this Country Written for Full Orchestra?” Symphony News, 27/2 (1976), 15
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  • M. Green: Women Composers: a Checklist of Works for the Solo Voice (Boston, 1980, 2/1982)
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  • M.D. Green: Black Women Composers: a Genesis (Boston, 1983)
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  • M. Booker: The Work of Women Composers from 1150 to 1995 (Ilfracombe, UK, 1996)
  • J. Tick: Ruth Crawford Seeger: a Composer’s Search for American Music (New York, 1997)
  • A.F. Block: Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: the Life and Works of an American Composer, 1867–1944 (New York, 1998)
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  • M. Mockus: Sounding Out: Pauline Oliveros and Lesbian Musicality (New York, 2008)
  • S. Cusick: Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power (Chicago, 2009)
Women as orchestral musicians and conductors
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  • “The Symphony Goes Co-ed,” Newsweek, 22/23 (1943), 86
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  • B. Jepson: “Women in American Symphony Orchestras,” Symphony News, 27/2 (1976), 13
  • P. Lehmann: “Women in Orchestras: the Promise and the Problems,” Symphony Magazine, 33/6 (1982), 13
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Women in popular music
  • S. Placksin: American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present (New York, 1982)
  • L. Dahl: Stormy Weather: the Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women (New York, 1984)
  • L. Grouse: Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists (New York and Oxford, 1995)
  • J. Tsou: “Gendering Race: Stereotypes of Chinese Americans in Popular Sheet Music,” repercussions, 6/2 (1997), 25–62
  • S. Tucker: Swing Shift: ‘All-Girl’ Bands of the 1940s (Durham, NC, 2000)
  • M.A. Bufwach and R.K. Oermann: Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music: 1800–2000 (Nashville, TN, 2003)
  • T. Rose: Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Middletown, CT, 2004)
  • S. Whiteley: Too Much Too Young: Popular Music, Age, and Gender (New York, 2005)
  • N. Rustin and S. Tucker, eds.: Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies (Durham, NC, 2008)
  • P. Fox: Natural Acts: Gender, Race, and Rusticity in Country Music (Ann Arbor, MI, 2009)
  • E. Hayes: Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics, and Women’s Music (Urbana, IL, 2010)
Directories and biographical dictionaries
  • J. Smith, ed.: Directory of American Women Composers (Chicago, 1970)
  • E. James: Notable American Women, 1607–1950: a Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge, MA, 1971, suppl. 1980)
  • D. Hixon and D. Hennessee: Women in Music: a Biobibliography (Metuchen, NJ, 1975)
  • R. Anderson, ed.: Contemporary American Composers: a Biographical Dictionary (Boston, 1976)
  • A. Laurence: Women of Notes: 1,000 Women Composers Born before 1900 (New York, 1978)
  • A.I. Cohen: International Encyclopedia of Women Composers (New York, 1981, suppl. 1982, 2/1987)
  • G. Claghorn: Women Composers and Hymnists: a Concise Biographical Dictionary (Metuchen, NJ, 1984)
  • J.A. Sadie and R. Samuel: The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (London and New York, 1994)
  • C.E. Claghorn: Women Composers and Songwriters: a Concise Biographical Dictionary (Lanham, MD, 1996)
  • The Women Composers Collection: From the Holdings of the Music Library, University of Michigan (Woodbridge, CT, 1998) [Microfilm set and guide]
  • M.F. McVicker: Women Composers of Classical Music: 369 biographies from 1550 into the 20th Century (Jefferson, NC, 2011)
  • Women and Folk Music: a Select Bibliography (Washington, DC, 1978)
  • A.F. Block and C. Neuls-Bates: Women in American Music: a Bibliography of Music and Literature (Westport, CT, 1979)
  • A.F. Block: “Recent Books about Women in Music,” CMS Newsletter (1981)
  • J.M. Meggett: Keyboard Music by Women Composers: a Catalog and Bibliography (Westport, CT, 1981)
  • H.M. Boenke: Flute Music by Women Composers: an Annotated Catalog (New York, 1988)
  • R.M. Johnson: Violin Music by Women Composers: a Bio-bibliographical Guide (New York, 1989)
  • A. Heinrich: Organ and Harpsichord Music by Women Composers: an Annotated Catalog (New York, 1991)
  • H. Walker-Hill: Piano Music by Black Women Composers: a Catalog of Solo and Ensemble Works (New York, 1992)
  • E. Grolman: Catalogue of Published Works for String Orchestra and Piano Trio by Twentieth-Century American Women Composers (Bessemer, AL, 1993)
  • H. Walker-Hill: Music by Black Women Composers: a Bibliography of Available Scores (Chicago, 1995)
  • M. Ericson: Women and Music: a Selective Annotated Bibliography on Women and Gender Issues in Music, 1987–1992 (New York, 1996)
  • J. MacAuslan and K. Aspen: Guitar Music by Women Composers: an Annotated Catalog (Westport, CT, 1997)
  • P.Y. Dees: A Guide to Piano Music by Women Composers (Westport, CT, 2002–4)
Music Educators Journal
Musical America
Yearbook, Inter-American Institute for Musical Research, later Yearbook for Inter-American Musical Research
Perspectives of New Music
Musical Quarterly
Black Perspective in Music
High Fidelity/Musical America Edition